Tax Deferred

What Does Tax-Deferred Mean?

Tax-deferred status refers to investment earnings—such as interest, dividends, or capital gains—that accumulate tax-free until the investor takes constructive receipt of the profits. Some common examples of tax-deferred investments include individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and deferred annuities.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax-deferred status refers to investment earnings—such as interest, dividends, or capital gains—that accumulate tax-free until the investor takes constructive receipt of the profits.
  • An investor benefits from the tax-free growth of earnings with tax-deferred investments, and if held until retirement, the tax savings can be substantial.
  • An example of a tax-deferred vehicle is a 401(k) plan: A tax-qualified defined contribution account offered by employers to help grow employees’ retirement savings.

Understanding Tax-Deferred

An investor benefits from the tax-free growth of earnings with tax-deferred investments. For investments held until retirement, the tax savings can be substantial. At retirement, the retiree will likely be in a lower tax bracket and no longer subject to premature tax and product withdrawal penalties.

Investing in qualified products, such as IRAs, allows participants to claim some or all of their contributions as a deduction on their tax returns. The benefit of declaring deductions in current years and incurring lower taxation in later years makes tax-deferred investments attractive.

Qualified Tax-Deferred Vehicles

A 401(k) plan is a tax-qualified defined contribution account offered by employers to help grow employees’ retirement savings. Companies employ a third-party administrator (TPA) to manage contributions, which are deducted from employee earnings. Employees choose to invest these contributions among various options, such as equity funds, company stock, money-market equivalents, or fixed-rate options. Contributions to qualified savings plans, such as 401(k) accounts, are made on a pre-tax basis, reducing taxable income received by the employee, which typically equates to lower tax liability.

Distributions from qualified plans are taxable as ordinary income if the owner is under the age of 59½. The IRS may assess a 10% premature withdrawal penalty. Tax-deferral and employer dollar-matching provisions encourage employees to set aside wages for retirement savings.

Nonqualified Tax-Deferred Vehicles

Because contributions to a nonqualified plan are from post-tax income, they do not reduce taxable income. However, if tax-deferred, the earnings may accumulate tax-free. The contributions establish a cost basis for interest calculations. 

On distributions, only the earnings are taxable—hence, the name deferred annuities. Deferred annuities are attractive insurance products that embrace the benefits of tax deferral. Individual retirement accounts, such as traditional IRAs, limit annual contribution amounts. For 2021 and 2022, the contribution limit is $6,000, or $7,000 if a person is age 50 or older. However, many annuities and other nonqualified tax-deferred products do not restrict contribution amounts.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 451: Individual Retirement Arrangements." Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 424: 401(k) Plans." Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics-Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions." Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Audit Techniques Guide." Accessed Dec. 10, 20121.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Announces 401(k) Limit Increases to $20,500." Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

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